Forecasters fuel hopes for a white Christmas
While the Met says it cannot be certain, there is a chance that Britain may see a relatively rare white Christmas this year. How and why is snow part of our Christmas tradition?
When Bing Crosby sang that he was dreaming of a white Christmas in 1942, he soon found he was not the only one: the song went on to become the biggest-selling single of all time. Yet despite being as quintessentially Christmassy as flying reindeer and tinsel, a white Christmas is extremely rare: the UK has only seen four in the last 51 years.
The media have been speculating on the likelihood of a white Christmas for weeks, and a special website was even set up informing people of the odds of a snowy December 25 in their home town. Now bookmakers have slashed the odds that snow will fall on Christmas Day after weather forecasters detected encouraging early signs.
Since Christmas celebrates a birth that took place in the Middle East, the fixation with snow is strange. Jesus was not even necessarily born in winter: the Romans only chose to mark it on December 25 because the date coincided with a pagan festival for Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. It is also close to the winter solstice, an important night for Celts.
Our idea of the white Christmas owes much to Charles Dickens, who grew up during a period of particularly severe winters known as the ‘little ice age‘. Seven of his first eight childhood winters happened to be white, and the nostalgia for snow filtered into works like A Christmas Carol. Along with the Christmas tree, Dickens conjured the fantasy of a snowy Christmas into the popular imagination at a time when the holiday was far less popular.
Whether in songs like ‘Let it Snow’, musicals like ‘White Christmas’ or films such as ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘Home Alone’ or ‘Elf’, the US has become a major exporter of Christmas traditions in recent decades. Yet after the American Revolution, Christmas had fallen out fashion among America’s Puritans. It was not until 1870 that Christmas became a federal holiday. While we think of Christmas as an ancient tradition, the way we celebrate it is relatively new.
The meaning of Christmas
Some feel that the novelty of these winter rituals strips the holiday of authenticity and meaning. We value traditions because they tie us to thousands of years of history, but a tradition that changes with each age is not really a tradition at all. With its mix of pagan ideas and Victorian sentimentalism, Christmas feels like it lacks roots.
But others counter that all traditions adapt to suit the age. We constantly reinvent old rituals to give them new meanings and reflect our ever-shifting values and beliefs. Re-interpreting traditions is an important part of how a culture expresses itself: so long as the value of family and community remains at its core, Christmas will always be Christmas.
- What winter traditions do you most value and why?
- Do rituals have more meaning when they are ancient than when they are new?
- In pairs, try to design an alternative winter holiday. Rather than roast dinners and presents under Christmas trees, come up with five new traditions that would bring people together.
- Many people complain that there are not enough good Christmas songs being written these days. Try to write a Christmas hit, including festive themes like snowmen, reindeer, presents, Christmas trees, family and so on.
Some People Say...
“Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won’t make it ‘white’’.Bing Crosby”
What do you think?
Q & A
- It doesn’t make a difference if it snows on Christmas.
- That’s a good attitude to have, because white Christmases are very rare! And much of the world has perfectly good Christmases without snow: for example, in Australia Christmas falls in summer, meaning Christmas dinner can be a backyard barbecue or a beach-side picnic; in African Christian communities, mango trees are sometimes decorated rather than pine or fir trees.
- If Christmas trees and presents are new, how was Christmas celebrated in the years after Jesus’s birth?
- It wasn’t. For early Christians, the ‘epiphany’ was much more important, which was when the Magi or ‘three wise men’ first visited Jesus. Even more important, of course, was Jesus’s resurrection at Easter.
- What counts as a white Christmas is disputed. If the definition is whether a snowflake fell on Christmas Day, then the UK has had 38 white Christmases in the past 52 years. But a few snowflakes are not enough for many people – some insist on, say, one inch of snow.
- The winter solstice on December 21 is the longest night of the year. The Celts knew it as Yule, a festival to celebrate the returning of light.
- Little ice age
- Between 1550 and 1850, temperatures were unusually cold in Britain and neighbouring countries. The River Thames would often freeze over in December and until 1813-14 a ‘frost fair’ was held on the ice.
- Christmas tree
- The practice of having a Christmas tree started to catch on in Britain after Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert, but a Dickens essay talking about the tree helped to make it a fixture in British households.
- Many of America’s early settlers believed Christmas was a pagan festival and that its traditions encouraged vices.